On this day in 1931, the jazz cornetist Bix Beiderbecke ceased being mortal and transformed instead into one of jazz’s original and most enduring legends. I have connected Bix to Virginia previously in these pages; today I offer up a few words on his legacy, excerpted from the unpublished manuscript Finding Bix, in which I visit Bix’s childhood home on Grand Avenue, in Davenport, Iowa:
Part Keats and part Fitzgerald, Bix the legend is a nineteenth-century Romantic hero refitted for the Jazz Age. He comes in with the flappers and checks out not long after the Great Crash, a baby-faced foot-shuffler who can’t read music and carries his instrument around in a brown paper bag. He is a “cardboard martyr,” complains the cantankerous British critic Benny Green; “a beatific figure before whom the idolators kneel in reverence, and at whom the debunkers heave giant brickbats.” He is “jazz’s Number One Saint,” and to boot he’s got Kirk Douglas’s chin. “Someday, when I’m really good, I’m gonna do things with this trumpet nobody’s ever thought of doing,” a wide-eyed Douglas tells Doris Day in the 1950 film The Young Man with a Horn (based on the Bix-inspired novel of the same name). “I’m gonna hit a note that nobody ever heard before.”
Never mind that Bix didn’t play trumpet; he played cornet. Or that he didn’t go for the high notes—the whole point of his style! The legendary Bix is the artist shooting for something he can’t quite reach. “Bix was as usual gazing off into his private astronomy,” Ralph Berton writes in his memoir Remembering Bix, also published in 1974. (On that book’s first page, Berton one-ups the old saxophone player and compares Bix to Jesus himself; a young James Dickey, in an unpublished essay dated 1943, throws in Napoléon, Alexander the Great, and Beethoven for good measure.) “Bix did not let anything at all detract his mind from that cornet,” Louis Armstrong recalled. “His heart was with it all the time.”
In the movie, this sort of behavior clearly concerns Doris Day. “You’ve got to have some other interest or you’ll go off your rocker,” she advises her young man. “I know. You need a hobby, like collecting stamps or a dog.”
Poor Kirk! I always feel bad for him at this moment—stamps?!?—even as I am left wondering what part of all this is Bix and what part is legend. Sudhalter & Evans’s answer is to focus their biography—rather tediously sometimes, for Bix’s life was not terribly exciting—only on what they know to be true. And in a way, their instincts are just as maternal as Doris Day’s. They hope to protect Bix not from himself but from his legend, which they compare to “40 years of underbrush” and at which they solemnly promise to hack away, “destroying the popularly accepted image to get at the person of fact, flesh and blood.” (One suspects that Benny Green would approve.) That in the end the underbrush always wins is, of course, hardly surprising. Sudhalter, who did the writing, and Evans, who contributed the research, squabbled so much—over the use of invented dialogue, over the question of whether one of Bix’s girlfriends had an abortion, even over the order of names on the book’s front cover—that after Man & Legend‘s publication they suffered a dramatic falling out. Already a contentious bunch, Bixophiles happily chose sides and began to call each other names. Cornetist and Evans friend Scott Black likened the book to the Warren Report and labeled Sudhalter a fraud. “Bix inspired beautiful things in the world of music,” Black wrote on an Internet discussion board in August 2005. “Outside the musicial [sic] world, he inspired greed and treachery by those who want to cash in …” In a 2003 interview, I asked Sudhalter about the controversy. “For twenty-five years, Phil Evans never stopped spewing anger, vituperation, and venom,” he said. “I’m still surprised when I come across people whose opinions of me have been shaped by him.”
Evans died in 1999, Sudhalter in 2008. And because of their conflict, Man & Legend, the first jazz biography to be nominated for a National Book Award, remains out of print. Bix, however, manages to live on—just not here on Grand Avenue. This place seems strangely empty of any Bix, real or imagined.
IN ADDITION: French artist Grégory Elbaz tells Bix’s story graphically.